Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Andreas Hillebrand is Global Head of Credit & Surety at Swiss Re Corporate Solutions, an experienced people manager and an active girl dad. 

William Trump is Head Customer Office for iptiQ at Swiss Re, the Global Lead for Swiss Re’s gender-equity network Level Up, a behavioural scientist and dad. 

Marilyn Blattner-Hoyle is Global Head of Trade Finance at Swiss Re Corporate Solutions, EMEA lead for Swiss Re’s gender-equity network Level Up, a leader of diverse teams and a mum. 

To mark International Women’s Day, Marilyn sat down with William and Andreas to get their perspective on gender equality and Swiss Re’s initiatives in this area. Open conversations and transparent perspectives from everyone are needed to drive an inclusive culture, manage bias, and bring people on the #EmbraceEquity journey – which is exactly what we wanted to achieve with this conversation.

Marilyn: International Women’s Day is on 8 March and this year’s theme is #EmbraceEquity. What does that mean to you?

Andreas: Embracing equity starts with creating a non-discriminatory culture, addressing unconscious bias and baking in diversity. Inclusion programmes are crucial to building understanding. In terms of lessons learned, a lack of diversity in teams is a big business risk that can lead to questionable decisions and potential blind spots.

A practical example of this blind spot risk comes from one of my previous roles when I was based in Asia. We were about to announce a major restructuring as we integrated with another company. I was concerned about potential blind spots in our decision-making team (mostly foreign men, including myself). We risked unawareness of cultural norms, and I worried that our cultural communication barriers might lead to a lack of understanding of how the teams felt and how they might influence the restructuring process.

To address this, we appointed a local, female change agent, who helped us to remove these blind spots and challenge our assumptions. We further diversified by appointing a woman with a very different cultural background and experience to the decision-making team. Their contributions have been consistent – they brought new perspectives and have strongly supported the cultural integration of the two companies.

Marilyn: Will, as a data-driven behavioural scientist, how do you reconcile the deep desire of organisations to close the gender gap and achieve an equitable workforce with the reality of the data on gender imbalance? 

Will: It’s good to be ambitious, but we also know a lot more now about how bias and stereotypes work – and how to tackle them – and that is an opportunity we need to seize. All we know about bias is that it’s deeply ingrained and often unconscious, so it can’t be fully addressed through training or education alone. We need to put effort into removing the bias from people – but also put more effort into removing the bias from systems.

Marilyn: Removing the bias; what does that mean with respect to Swiss Re?

Will: Let’s look at recruitment as an example. Following the evidence on what initiatives work – we’ve redesigned the recruitment process itself to make it less biased – specifically assessing all candidates against a set of competencies, using the same interview questions for each of those competencies and ensuring diverse interview panels. We implemented this at Swiss Re UK in mid-2022, and the data already shows that it’s had a positive impact on rebalancing the gender split in recruitment.

Marilyn: Andreas, from your experience as a senior leader do you believe targets for managers are part of the equity puzzle?

Andreas: In my view, tracked targets are necessary because unmeasured targets are also unmanaged targets. Once you reach a tipping point where diversity is self-sustaining, this will be less critical, but until then, clear ambitions can help reaching this balance. It’s only one part of the puzzle to drive equity, though. For example, at Swiss Re we’re also paying close attention to building a strong female talent pipeline, we’re committed to ensuring equal pay for equal work, we rely on strong mentoring programs which aim supporting our ambition to attract and retain female talents and our flexible working practices benefit all employees. This all helps to really embrace equity.

Marilyn: Andreas, how do you ensure everyone in your team is on board to drive this change – and how do you avoid unintended consequences?   

Andreas: To fully embrace equity we need to keep working on our culture and mindset. We can only be successful on this journey if we include everyone and if we encourage open and transparent discussions. It is natural to avoid change, so I also experience resistance. You have to allow people and teams to go through a cycle of change and manage it. You can do that by showing confidence in the recruitment and decision-making processes and providing avenues to raise concerns if someone feels something is not right. If I hear a comment suggesting that someone was “hired because of targets”, I have to immediately dispel the myth, and explain that we hire and promote the best person for the job.

Marilyn: You’ve mentioned the needed efforts of everyone; what can leaders do concretely to support colleagues in the workplace? 

Andreas: I am a father of three girls myself and have the greatest respect for the herculean effort required to raise kids while trying to advance a career, especially for female colleagues. There are many simple things that can be done that will make a huge difference.  

Some examples are:

  • Offering flexibility in how and when business trips and even meetings are arranged 
  • As a leader, enabling and facilitating open and transparent discussions in the team: e.g. how can we best support new parents as colleagues and as a team?
  • Advertising all vacancies at 80-100%, as we do in the UK and Switzerland, for example.
  • In Zurich, we built the Kids House, where Swiss Re colleagues can regularly bring their children up to the age of 18 months. Older children can be left in care in case of emergencies
  • Making sure there are flexible facilities available to enable breastfeeding and pumping in a work environment 
  • Fully embracing “own the way you work”, which allows flexibility and enables parents to better balance children and career.

Marilyn: Andreas, your daughters are about to start their careers. What advice would you give them on navigating their professional lives in the context of gender bias and diversity?  

Andreas: I encourage them to surround themselves with a diverse community, to fight for what they want, raise their hand, and take every opportunity for leadership roles they can, because they need to know that they can be a part of the change they want to see. Their future is in an inclusive workplace, but they still need to make sure they have a seat at the table. I am reminded of the quote by Shirley Chisholm, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”